Reactor

Finding Feminism in World of Warcraft

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 21, 2013

Screen shot of Angela Washko's "Chastity and The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft"

Screen shot of Angela Washko’s “Chastity and The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft” (image via worldofwarcraftexplainsfeminism.com)

World of Warcraft (WoW) has a massive following: in 2011, some 10 million users participated in the online role-playing game. And according to a New York Times article from last year, women comprise an increasing numbers of those players and of online gamers in general: they are, apparently, one the industry’s fastest growing demographics.

Still, though their numbers may be growing, women are hardly the majority in WoW. According to artist Angela Washko, more than 85% of players are male, with 55% of female character avatars played by men — which explains, at least in part, why Washko has also found the language and environment of WoW to be incredibly discriminatory and misogynistic (not to mention somewhat homophobic).

Washko decided to do something about it. She plunged into the game last January and began approaching players and asking them about feminism. She hoped to create a council of feminists within WoW, dubbed “The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness In World of Warcraft,” to bring attention to and protest the sexist language. As you might expect, trying to get people to talk about something as serious and still (after all these years!) as controversial as feminism did not often go well. Washko writes:

During the many hours of “performing” this procedure of discussing feminism in a space that doesn’t welcome such behavior, I spoke mostly to men. Many of the women willing to respond to me told me that they weren’t feminists because women are already equal to men.  Throughout my conversations I was repeatedly told to get back into the kitchen (or asked if I had a laptop and was playing from the kitchen) and often to make the male characters present some sandwiches or “sammies.”  I was told definitions of feminism like “not waxing your granny mustache,” “big titties,” “naked and pregnant,” “wanting to be able to pee standing up,” “are the dishes done and my laundry folded?,” “hairy armpits,” “a word with too many connotations to be worth defining,” “equal rights for women,” “the ability to have children,” “man-hating whores,” and “two ears … two boobs … bacon cheddar cheese thighs” to name a few. These are pretty expected in a way, given the constructs of internet and particularly massively-multiplayer gaming language.

One conversation that stood out, though, was an intense discussion Washko had with another player named Chastity, who identified herself as a married and pregnant 19-year-old. Chastity espoused some strong views on femininity and feminism, beginning with the idea that women are basically put on earth in order to be mothers. The conversation went on from there, for five hours, during which time Washko (playing as the character Snuh), Chastity, and others passing through discussed racism, abortion, rape, and more.

Washko released the resulting three-part video last Friday, coinciding with the announcement that the project, “Chastity and The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft,” had won a Terminal Award from the Center of Excellence in the Creative Arts at Austin Peay State University. It’s a mesmerizing thing to watch: dramatic WoW music plays, dragons swoop in and out, and characters periodically jump, run back and forth, or shift positions within the fantastical landscape, all while a very political, yet personal, discussion takes place in black chat boxes. Washko has also released the entire script as a PDF, but it’s a stronger, stranger experience to watch the conversation unfold within the game. It gives resonance to Washko’s assertion that World of Warcraft “is its own form of public space realized virtually” as well as “a space in which the suppressed ideologies of a politically correct global society flourishes.” Which makes finding, or bringing, feminism there all the more important.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    I suggest that each woman should be able to decide for herself what it means to be a woman — and that other women should respect her decision. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. There are different approaches to feminism today — and what it may mean to the individual. For instance, look at how one feminist will attack another feminist over the desire to be a stay at home mom. Both embrace feminism in their own way — follow their own definition. Just thinking…

  • http://twitter.com/dadalinski Dada

    Here is a similar article actually addressing why men play female avatars,

    http://thebetterbombshell.com/2012/12/20/paula-cuneo-gender-dynamics-in-gaming-and-why-men-play-female-avatars/

  • Jamie DeAngelo

    Do virtual gaming environments catalyze hate speech largely because they are dominated by poorly monitored 12 year old boys? I am curious to know the ages of the various players Washko approached. Regardless of age, however, male WoW players clearly aren’t spending enough time consulting Ryan Gosling’s views on the subject. http://feministryangosling.tumblr.com/page/2

    • http://twitter.com/angelawashko Angela Washko

      Hi Jamie – the average player-base is around 28 actually (though this statistic is a bit old). My guild-mates range in age from 17 to 60. Some people I’ve played consistently with are college professors, nurses, members of the U.S. Army, Marines, one is a high school math teacher, many are college students, some are unemployed or disabled, some work retail jobs etc. They are diverse in their cultural + economic + academic backgrounds as well as their sexual orientation. That’s why it is most interesting to me that the common language practiced is generally so misogynistic/homophobic/racist.

      • Jamie DeAngelo

        Hi Angela! Wow. I’m surprised and a little disappointed. I am not a gamer, so the security of that space re: discussions of gender, sexuality, and race is not something I’ve thought about before, especially since I assumed that the perpetrators of the “sammies” comments were a small and vocal minority, not the vast majority of WoW players. Thank you for correcting my assumptions. I am curious to know if this project gave you a better understanding of why large multiplayer gaming environments encourage misogynistic and racist discourse. Is this kind of aggressive hate-speech cathartic because it allows taboo-breaking without real-world consequences? (Also, is there somewhere else that the PDF of the discussion is posted? I was curious to read it, but I live in China and dropbox is blocked).

  • http://www.facebook.com/jae.smith.14661 Jae Smith

    hmmmm…. this research sems a bit limited – the only part that is available is the Chastity version of feminism in one interview in Ogrimmar. I thought your research was conducted over several servers/toons/factions? and hopefully time differences. I know a lot of feminists who play wow – myself included and we certainly don’t hold Chastity’s views – I thought the questions you asked could have been more open – feminist boob jobs for example-really? Is that what defines feminism and I dont think you can you can dismiss/seperate race and feminism – I am a postcolonial feminist lesbian and I can guarantee my views on feminism are a little broader.

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